HemisFair ’68 at Risk

By Kim Barker on behalf of the Docomomo US/MidTexMod Chapter

Changes are planned for San Antonio’s world’s fair site, HemisFair ‘68, and they have fans of modern architecture concerned. Intended to celebrate the city’s 250-anniversary and a confluence of cultures, HemisFair ’68 was a six-month exposition opened by First Lady Ladybird Johnson in April 1968.  Typical of a world’s fair, various states, nations, and corporations built new exhibition halls in the styles of the period, some of which are exceptional examples of modern architecture.  Given San Antonio’s established preservation ethic, they also retained and repurposed some of the nineteenth century residential buildings already on the site before the rest of the neighborhood was sacrificed for fair construction.  HemisFair ’68 attracted 6.3 million visitors but under-utilization since is now prompting redevelopment plans.
 
 
Photo (above): Confluence Theater (now John H. Woods, Jr. U.S. Courthouse), Marmon Mok Associates, 1968 (credit: Kim Barker)
 
A number of iconic buildings were constructed specifically for HemisFair ’68, including but not limited to the Tower of the Americas, Institute of Texan Cultures, and Confluence Theater.  The Tower of the Americas stands 622 feet tall with a rotating top house that served as an observation deck and restaurant.  Designed by Ford, Powell & Carson, the Tower served as HemisFair ‘68’s theme building, and remains the tallest observation tower in Texas.  The Institute of Texan Cultures, designed by Caudill Rowlett Scott and Collins & Wagner to house exhibits and archives on Texas history, is a strong example of high style architecture of its time with its sculptural massing and constructivist minimalism. And, the Confluence Theater by Marmok Mok Associates of San Antonio is an exceptional example of New Formalism with tapered concrete columns around book-matched travertine on one side of the round building, and bronze-colored glass panels on the other half.
 
Overall, changes to HemisFair ’68 since the fair have been fairly minimal, with the loss of a few mid-century buildings and the addition of fairly limited new construction.  In 1975, the federal government adaptively rehabilitated the Confluence Theater as a U.S. Courthouse and the associated Exhibit Hall became a training center.  A new seven-story federal office building was constructed nearby.  A convention center and the Institute of Texan Cultures continue to anchor opposite sides of the site although the growing convention center market has demanded regular expansion of the original building; the Institute of Texan Cultures remains unaltered. 
 
Fair planners envisioned that the site would continue to serve various fairs after HemisFair ’68 closed, but it has been largely under-utilized in the ensuing decades.  Small efforts to draw visitors to the fair site, including a large playscape and a welcoming archway, have proven unsuccessful. 
 
Photo (right): Tower of the Americas, Ford, Powell & Carson, 1968 (credit: Kim Barker)
 
In 2009, HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation was formed to manage and oversee large-scale redevelopment of the fair site.  Two years ago, they developed a Framework Plan, endorsed by the City of San Antonio, that includes demolition of all buildings constructed for HemisFair ’68 except the Tower of the Americas, reinstatement of the residential street grid that existed prior to the fair, large-scale mixed-use development, and the creation of additional parkland.  Redevelopment plans are now moving forward.   The Confluence Theater is further threatened by demolition by the City of San Antonio after the building transfers from federal ownership to the City in the next few years.
 
The pre-HemisFair ’68 buildings are all protected by Texas’ highest designation, State Antiquities Landmark, which requires a permit from the Texas Historical Commission (TX State Historic Preservation Office) before any modifications may occur.  But none of the buildings constructed for HemisFair ’68 are protected in this way, and they do not have other state or federal designations either (redevelopment is subject to review by the City’s Historic & Design Review Commission as a local historic district). 
 
Texas Historical Commission previously determined that both the Tower of the Americas and Institute of Texas Cultures are eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, and, at the time of writing, eligibility of HemisFair ’68 as a historic district is under consideration.  MidTexMod is hopeful that the other architecturally significant HemisFair ’68 buildings, including Confluence Theater will also be determined individually eligible.  We believe that determinations of National Register eligibility are important to gathering the community support necessary to save these unique buildings from the wrecking ball. 
 
Photo (left): Institute of Texan Cultures, Caudill Rowlett Scott and Callins & Wagner, 1968 (credit: Charles Peveto)
 
Local opinion appears to be shifting towards recognizing the importance of HemisFair ’68 and the architectural significance of at least some of its buildings, aided in part by various organizations drawing attention to the site.  In 2011, MidTexMod hosted a Tour Day event at HemisFair ’68.  The San Antonio Conservation Society, a non-profit advocacy organization, hosted a day-long symposium on modernism in 2012, and has come out in support of retaining significant HemisFair ’68 buildings.  And, AIA San Antonio will host a design charette entitled, “A Brutal Redesign:  Reimaging HemisFair’s Modern Buildings” in mid-April.  We are optimistic that such efforts will lead HemisFair Park Area Redevelopment Corporation to revise their redevelopment plans and retain these important buildings.

 

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